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November 25, 2020

To the streets


November 25, 2020

The majority of general elections in Pakistan have been mired in controversy, and our electoral history has been tarnished by allegations of rigging and electoral malpractice.

Elections in Pakistan have been entrapped in a repetitive cycle which includes the losing party – or parties – rejecting the results and taking to the streets.

In the aftermath of the 2013 elections, the PTI staged a 126-day sit-in in Islamabad to press for its demand for a judicial inquiry into the rigging allegations. The General Elections 2013 Inquiry Commission Ordinance 2015 was promulgated, and a judicial commission was established to probe into the impartiality and fairness of the 2013 elections. The judicial commission concluded that the elections were “in large part” organised and conducted fairly and in accordance with the law.

After the 2018 elections, the PTI declared victory but the opposing political parties alleged foul play. The PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif immediately tweeted stating, “Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) wholly rejects the results of General Elections 2018 due to manifest and massive irregularities.” Following a similar pattern, pursuant to the results of the Gilgit-Baltistan elections in 2020, the country’s two largest opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, have rejected the results – once again claiming that they have been rigged and the election has been stolen from them.

In September 2020, a unified anti-government movement emerged calling itself the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). The PDM is an alliance of 11 opposition parties. The PDM’s action plan is divided into separate phases and involves holding countrywide rallies leading to a ‘long march’ towards Islamabad in January 2021. The PDM has a charter of demands which among other things includes the resignation of the prime minister followed by free and transparent elections.

The reality is that there is nothing democratic about the PDM. Political leaders taking to the streets and upsetting the stability of an entire nation to further their own agenda is never democratic. It set an extremely dangerous precedent when the PTI held their sit-in in 2014, and the same holds true today.

First, in the course of all these long marches and sit-ins, the real cost is to the Pakistani public. The PTI’s 2014 sit-in was during Operation Zarb-e-Azb and led to the government at the time fearing that the huge crowds in Islamabad could lead to massive conflict and terrorist attacks. The reopening of educational institutions was delayed in order to accommodate the sit-in. By August 31, 2014 the government claimed that economic losses directly resulting from the sit-in were over Rs500 million.

At present, the country is in the midst of a second wave of a global pandemic and the PDM has rejected the government’s move to impose restrictions on public gatherings. In complete disregard for public health and safety, the PDM has announced that the remaining three gatherings will be held as scheduled. There is always a cost – and it is the public that primarily bears the cost.

Second, the PDM’s claims of being the saviors of our democracy is watered down by the fact that the PMLN vice president, Maryam Nawaz has said that her party is willing to hold talks with the establishment, provided that the PTI government is not party to these conversations. This shows that they are ultimately willing to be part of the system that they are actively fighting against – as long as they emerge as the winners. Third, the legal system provides a mechanism for those dissatisfied by the sitting government.

Article 95 of the constitution states, “A resolution for a vote of no-confidence moved by not less than twenty per centum of the total membership of the National Assembly may be passed against the prime minister by the National Assembly.” If the resolution is passed by the majority of the National Assembly, the prime minister shall cease to hold office.

Furthermore, Election Act 2017 allows those aggrieved by elections results to challenge results through an election petition to election tribunals. An election petition must be presented within 45 days of the candidate’s name being published in the official Gazette. Section 158 states, “The Election Tribunal shall declare the election as a whole to be void if it is satisfied that the results of the election has [sic] been materially affected” by either a failure to comply with provisions of the Act or the rules in connivance with the returned candidate or the prevalence of extensive corrupt or legal practices. However, taking the legal route does not come with the theatrics of public gatherings and is inevitably much less attractive.

Electoral justice has now firmly cemented itself in the national imaginary as a battle to be fought on the streets. The endless theatre of rallies is not only endangering public health and safety, it is also endangering democracy.

Last week, the prime minister announced that his government plans to introduce an electronic voting system to ensure elections are fairer and more transparent. For the upcoming Senate elections, his party will propose that senators vote through a show of hands. The PDM has rejected the prime minister’s offer for dialogue on electoral reforms.

The inherent flaws in our system were highlighted in the Asghar Khan case, where the Supreme Court stated that the general elections held in 1990 were “subjected to corruption and corrupt practices.” The court went on to say that, “an Election Cell was established in the Presidency to influence the elections and was aided by...the Chief of Army Staff and by...the then Director General ISI.”

As the Asghar Khan case shows, there is a strong case to be made for reforming the system. The streets are not the correct avenue for electoral reform. Democracy would be better served if the PDM worked with the government in bringing this change.

The writer is a lawyer practising in Lahore.